The fatality equation: death in Minnesota, death in Iraq


The fatality equation: death in Minnesota, death in IraqThe bridge collapse over the Mississippi River in early August was without question a tragedy. US President George W Bush responded to this 'terrible situation' by sending his top transport officials in an attempt to find answers.

The disaster in Minnesota, especially as the recovery effort continued, dominated the American media. It is human nature to respond to tragedies closest to home. As concerns were raised about the structural integrity of bridges throughout the United States, the issue remained in the news for weeks after.

Despite the distance between Australia and Minnesota, our local and national media was also saturated with stories from survivors, live reports and footage of the collapse. News broadcasts ran numerous segments devoted to developments at the scene. This demonstrates the Australian capacity for empathy. The tragedy of the victims of the bridge collapse, as well as the pain of their families, is not under question. It is the intensity of the Australian public and media interest in this particular tragedy, as other disasters and crises that require our urgent attention and reflection continue unabated, which is interesting.

In Iraq, also on that Thursday, the news was also grim. In a town outside Baghdad, a suicide bomber drove an explosive laden car into a line of new recruits queuing to join the state’s police force, an act which has become inherently risky in the new Iraq. A reported 13 people, police and civilians, died. Scores more were injured. But the bloodshed didn’t end there. In Baghdad, also on Thursday, a series of bomb attacks left at least 70 people dead, the overwhelming majority of which were civilians. Lives were torn apart, families destroyed and sectarian divisions deepened.

This kind of violence, and the death in Iraq, is so commonplace that it no longer captures our attention. The reports on the civilian death toll since the US-led invasion in 2003 vary so widely that it becomes easier to not engage. Indeed, the sheer number of deaths somehow dehumanises the victims. The online resource, Iraq Body Count, places the reported number of civilian deaths in Iraq at between 68,470 and 74,900. Comprehending or contextualising death on this scale is hard, particularly in a country as peaceful and secure as Australia. Put in a way that makes sense in sports mad Melbourne, the number of dead Iraqis would nearly fill the MCG.

The war in Iraq, and its horrific associated death toll, has become old news. The relegating of Iraqi suffering to the back pages of the daily papers appears to feed into a long-held tendency to accept war and death as somehow inevitable or worse yet, ‘natural’, in the Middle East. Iraq’s messy sectarian politics, the constant emergence of new factions, the unending killings have all served to distance us from the humanity of those involved.

The fatality equation: death in Minnesota, death in IraqThe Australian media, indeed all media, merely reflects the interests and concerns of the community of which it is a part. In terms of representation, what Thursday, August 2 2007 demonstrated is that the value which we ascribe to human suffering, and indeed human life, in the global community is not equitable.

In this case, death in Minnesota and death in Iraq have been judged by disparate standards. The Americans affected by the bridge collapse were able to put their stories forward in English and draw on the specter of the unforeseen, unimaginable accident — literally the wrong place, wrong time scenario- which terrifies us all. By contrast, the Iraqi civilians caught up in a complex political crisis are increasingly dismissed as participants in their own disaster. In the words of Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, Iraqis should ‘take responsibility for Iraq.’ In a society where police recruits are targeted by suicide bombers and death, poverty and political alienation are features of daily life, this has proven difficult.

If media coverage does indeed reflect the interests of the community, then this suggests that there are serious and problematic differences in how, as Australians, we respond to the loss of human life in different parts of the world.



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Existing comments

The media appetite for the breaking story and the bizarre is never satiated..... Iraq is not a breaking story, and is certainly not bizarre....

Now, how much is the media responsible for not mobilising the public opinion against the ongoing human humiliation in Iraq? I suspect more than anyone is prepared to admit. Certainly it has the means and power, through objective, insightful, and consistent reporting to do so….. But the $’s will not let this happen.

Yet again the profits in a globalised economy stand in the way of human dignity.

Anthony | 06 September 2007

well said. we allow ourselves to kill by dehumanizing those we kill.putting them at the back of the paper is just another way of dehumanizing.they do it to soldiers here in the us can't love your neighbor and kill them.killing dehumanizes us all.
mike dunford | 06 September 2007


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